Worldwatch has subtitled its 2004 version "The Consumer Society" and focuses on the impact consumption has on sustainability.
"Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs," said Institute president Christopher Flavin. "But as we enter a new century, this unprecedented consumer appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world's poor to meet their basic needs."
The report focuses on major resource categories -- energy, water, food -- and assesses the growth of world consumption and the prospects for sustainability in the future.
"By virtually any measure -- household expenditures, number of consumers, extraction of raw materials -- consumption of goods and services has risen steadily in industrial nations for decades, and it is growing rapidly in many developing countries," the report said. The vast majority of consumer spending -- about 60 percent of the total -- occurs in North America and Western Europe, but consumption is increasing in other parts of the world as well.
"Nearly half of all global consumers now live in the developing world," said project director Lisa Mastny. "While the average Chinese or Indian consumes much less than the average North American or European, China and India alone now boast a combined consumer class larger than that in all of Western Europe."
The report's authors concede consumption is not inherently bad, although they are somewhat vague about the definition of the term, "consumer." They cite research by the United Nations Environment Program that identifies a global consumer class: people with income equivalents of $7,000 a year. But then they mention this is roughly the official poverty level in Western Europe.
There apparently is a narrow window between being poor and being a profligate user of the world's resources. The report acknowledges there are 2.8-billion people who survive on $2 a day, and 1.2 billion who live in extreme poverty with less than $1 a day.
"The Worldwatch Institute has become something of a doomsday cult," Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., told United Press International. "Every year, they come up with the imminent collapse of this or that resource, and they have been proven wrong."
Taylor said the state of the world in most part is moving in the right direction. Examining price trends worldwide shows most critical resources are moving toward greater abundance -- not greater scarcity, he added.
"What Worldwatch fails to understand is that resources are created by mankind, not discovered by mankind," Taylor said. "Knowledge and technology harness resources for human benefits." He cited, for instance, the fact that 150 years ago, oil was not considered a useful resource. Only human ingenuity made it valuable. "About 50 years ago, oil a thousand feet below the ocean was not a resource for anybody. Now we can recover it."
Still, using the price of commodities as a measure of well-being has limited use as well. Most resource economists acknowledge market forces often do not incorporate the entire cost of goods and services when that production uses up a commonly held resource, such as clean air or wildlife habitat.
This tragedy of the commons, as it was called by philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968, can result in calls for two apparently opposing solutions -- increased private management of public resources, or increased centralized government regulation. One's position on this issue seems to depend on one's perception of how efficiently markets can allocate resources.
In Worldwatch's view, markets are not necessarily the best mechanism for distributing goods and services. They cite a 1999 analysis of industrial economies by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins that suggests the United States economy generates $2 trillion of waste -- expenditures for which no value is received -- or 22 percent of its entire value.
The report counterbalances some so-called luxury consumer expenditures with spending on essentials that offers food for thought. For instance, the world spends $18 billion on makeup, compared with $12 billion for women's reproductive healthcare. Americans alone spend $17 billion on pet food, while worldwide elimination of hunger and malnutrition would cost about $19 billion.
Furthermore, the humans create a large and expanding ecological footprint, according to the report. "Calculations ... show that the Earth has 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes. Yet the environmental demands of the world's economies are so large that the average person today uses 2.3 hectares of productive land."
Dan Whipple covers the environment for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org